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An Activist for Roma Rights - 2002-05-24

English Programs Feature #7-36334
Broadcast May 27, 2002

In the United States as elsewhere, the word “gypsy” tends to be associated with negative stereotypes. Today on New American Voices, we talk to a leader of the Roma community of New York, who works to overcome these stereotypes both among the general public and among the Roma themselves.

George Kaslov, who left school at age 12, is the director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Roma Rights and Recognition.

“We aim to insure the fair and equal treatment of Rom in the United States, to enable them to move from the margins towards inclusion and involvement in the larger society.”

Mr. Kaslov founded the New York-based organization seven years ago to help Roma who are victims of discrimination, stereotyping, or racial profiling. Although Mr. Kaslov is a Rom, the lawyers who serve on the committee are not, and all donate their services.

“We’re the ones who provide information and assistance to attorneys and their Rom clients, we serve as expert witnesses in Roma-related cases, and what’s very important is that we address negative stereotyping of Rom in the media. We’ve managed to remove at least two or three programs off the air, that were discriminating against Roma, I’ve received apologies and letters of regret from newspapers who will not use the work “gypsy” any more or characterize us in derogatory fashion.”

Other than accepting the stereotypes, George Kaslov says the general American public is mostly unaware of the Rom in their midst. Partly, this is because the Rom, unlike many ethnic groups, do not live in discrete communities, do not have their own schools or organizations or restaurants, and generally do not look or dress differently than anyone else. Partly, however, it is also a matter of conscious choice.

“We have kept a very low profile. The Rom that come here from other countries, they are afraid, they are reluctant to emerge, to identify themselves. My people have been oppressed for so long, and they’re so reluctant to emerge into the mainstream.”

George Kaslov says many Rom parents are reluctant to send their children to school because of fear of discrimination on the one hand, and fear of the influence of outside society on the other.

“Sooner or later it’s discovered that that child may be a gypsy. Children tend to ridicule you, they call you things like “dirty gypsy”. Also, there’s fear of assimilation. The culture begins to dwindle, the traditions…”

George Kasolv’s family came to the United States from Russia about a hundred years ago. Mr. Kaslov himself believes in education, and although he is largely self-taught, his three children all finished high school. His profession for many years was what he calls “precious metal recovery”, or the scrap-iron business. Indeed, Mr. Kaslov believes that going into business is one way for Rom to be successful in America.

“I encourage them to go into businesses of different kinds, whatever they please. Start a business. If you have any problems concerning racism, that’s what I’m here to help you with, if authorities, or business groups, or even private people are discriminating against you, I’m here to help you. [I’ve had] a very small degree of success, because only a few have actually gone into business.”

George Kaslov admits that it’s not only unfair treatment and discrimination that hold Roma back. He says an ingrained attitude among the Rom is even more difficult to overcome.

“It’s both, the oppression and the internal feeling of Rom that we cannot succeed. It’s ingrained in their head that we can’t get ahead, we’re stopped. The ‘I-can’t-make-it’ attitude. I’m a gypsy, who’s going to hire me, who’s going to pay attention to me. And after such a long time of this, hundreds and hundreds of years, it’s ingrained, it’s hard to get out of our mind.”

The Rom population in the United States is estimated at about a million people. In recent years many Rom have entered the United States as refugees, especially from Eastern Europe. Several thousand Rom from the Balkans are scheduled to be resettled here in the near future. George Kaslov hopes they will succeed in American society.

“I would tell them to respect our laws, that’s very important. I would tell them to try to enter mainstream in a subtle way, I’d warn them about some of the pitfalls here in America concerning Rom, and that being the authorities. These are the important things in the beginning. But what I would like them to understand that they’re in a country where they are free to do as they please, provided they follow the rules and regulations of the country, and, of course, respect the law.”

Next week on New American Voices you’ll meet an immigrant from Somalia whose job it is to help refugees, including Roma, resettle in this country.